Stories and the “Culture Story”

John Willson
Professor of History, Hillsdale College

John WillsonJohn Willson is the Salvatori Professor of History and Traditional Values at Hillsdale College.

Just when they were knee-deep in student exams and all the other paperwork that comes at the end of the semester, we decided to give some of our faculty and staff an exam of their own. We asked each to write a brief essay on Hillsdale College’s mission and how it relates to his or her academic area. Readers interested in a more extended discussion of the curriculum may order a copy of Provost and Associate Professor of Law Robert Blackstock’s February 1995 Imprimis issue “Hillsdale College and the Western Tradition: Exploring the Roots of Freedom.”

One of the publications that explains the history, mission, and purpose of Hillsdale College states: “The ultimate aim of any college is the success of its graduates in their pursuit of wisdom, virtue, courage, and more tangible goals.” Such success is hard to measure, but should be the motive behind a coherent curriculum. College students learn wisdom, virtue, courage and the other attributes of morally self-responsible citizens largely by studying what they have inherited from those who pursued these things in the past. This includes both what our forefathers learned (and failed to learn) and how they learned. A major premise of Hillsdale’s curriculum is that they learned much from hearing, reading, and telling stories.

One wise observer once remarked, “The world is made up of stories, not of atoms.” Many others have said this in different ways. Their message is not that we should deny material reality or stop studying atoms. They are simply reminding us that stories about human experience give meaning to existence. Hillsdale’s curriculum begins with what we have learned to call the “culture story.” In the social sciences, telling the culture story is initially the responsibility of two courses that all students are required to take: “The Western Heritage” and “The American Heritage.” According to the course proposal, the purpose of the first “is to acquaint students with the historical roots of the Western heritage, and in particular to explore the ways in which modern man is indebted to Greco-Roman culture and the Judeo- Christian tradition.” “The American Heritage” picks up the story as Europeans moved westward in the 17th century and emphasizes the “American regime, the American experiment of liberty under law.”

We are convinced that students are no longer taught “who they are,” as the novelist Andrew Lytle put it. Before they can begin to comprehend non-Western cultures, they must first understand their own. Given the state of American education in general, this requires a major act of restoration. Two courses cannot accomplish it, but they can lay a foundation. In the sophomore year, all Hillsdale students must choose courses from other important disciplines housed in the division of social sciences: economics, business, accounting, political science, psychology, and sociology. Focused and refined, the culture study continues at that level.

It should be noted here that academic divisions at Hillsdale are not meant to represent discrete branches of knowledge. A division is merely a convenient way of organizing the faculty for administrative purposes. The entire social science faculty at Hillsdale would not make up even a medium-size department at most large universities. Hillsdale is a collegium, a university and not a multiversity. The intellectual coherence we seek is college-wide, not divisional. Deans of divisions function much like department chairpersons at larger schools.

Nevertheless, the term “social science” means something for the curriculum. We require all students to study political science, economics, psychology, and sociology (at a minimum, two of the four). Social science at Hillsdale assumes that truth exists and is worth pursuing; that reason applied to human affairs can lead to objective principles about human nature and society. With Aristotle, we start with science as respect for common sense, and we ascend from common sense through reason. We reject social science as a rationalist enterprise to construct social reality, which always leads to relativism and ideology. Homer’s epics and the Old Testament portray fully functioning societies that do not rest upon scientific knowledge or defer to the authority of science. Our social science students confront first principles and the permanent things in the great literature of politics and society.

In all of Hillsdale’s social science disciplines, introductory courses and majors reflect the liberal arts mission of the College and are in service of the culture story. Here are a few samples from the Hillsdale College 1996-1997 Catalogue:

  • Psychology’s first course introduces students to the major theoretical points of view “from which psychologists have tried to understand human thought and action.” It is based on the question, “What should every liberally educated person know about this field of human knowledge?” The first course psychology majors take is a rigorous intellectual history of the discipline. Only then are they introduced to the empirical aspects of psychology, which dominate most contemporary programs in the field. Faculty work very closely with advanced students in individually designed research projects.
  • Economics has introduced a foundation course in “political economy.” It includes basic economic theory, but also the role of government and constitutional law. It is taught historically and includes classic writings in the field as well as public policy studies. The discipline continues its long-standing commitment to free market economics and its theoretical emphasis on Austrian School economics. In a recent development most upper division courses assume knowledge of advanced statistics and mathematics through calculus.
  • Political science is grounded in political philosophy. Introductory students grapple with “the perennial problems of politics, with a special emphasis on the forms and formalities of liberty.” They read such classic works of the Western political tradition as those by Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, The Federalist, Kant, Tocqueville, and others. As they move on to American government (including constitutional law) and international politics, a strong emphasis remains on close reading of political texts.
  • The program in sociology is labeled “Sociology and Social Thought” because again the focus is historical and theoretical. It is broadly cross-disciplinary and aims at understanding contemporary society and culture. Before students confront the research methods that dominate contemporary sociology they are grounded in the social thought that has become such an important part of the Western culture story in the past two centuries.

Social science at Hillsdale is first historical and philosophical. Courses and majors are framed in such a way as to reflect the chief concern of the curriculum: a coherence based on the mission statement. Faculty members tend to use traditional teaching methods, including lectures, discussion of original texts, and frequent recitation and writing assignments. As is true of the natural sciences, an important feature of all social science majors is the opportunity for students to do original research closely guided by professors, often in a one-on-one setting.

About a third of all Hillsdale graduates major in one or another of the programs in business administration or accounting. In many schools, business is set apart from the liberal arts, treated as “professional” or “practical” in a way the liberal arts are not. While it is true that business courses, and especially accounting courses, point students toward the “more tangible goals” in their future, at Hillsdale they are also a vital part of our understanding of the liberal arts. They are majors in a liberal arts college, not part of a separate business college or curriculum. Faculty are chosen for their broad learning and commitment to the mission of Hillsdale College rather than for narrow research expertise in finance or marketing. Concern for “wisdom, courage, virtue, and more tangible goals” is just as evident as in the other social sciences. The stories they teach are often case studies and are as challenging and as dramatic as the stories of ancient heroes.

As a teacher of what is often considered one of the most “irrelevant” subjects in the liberal arts (history), I have been fascinated for many years by how real the culture story eventually becomes for our graduates. Almost a year ago I received a message via the miracle of electronic mail from Manokotak, Alaska. It was from a 1987 Hillsdale graduate who had been my advisee and student. In his message, he reminded me, “I was not one of your top students,” but learned “more than my transcripts showed.” He added that while in college he was often “confused by the social mix” and sometimes felt out of place, but he was “always aware of the value of the education” Hillsdale provided.

He returned to his native Alaska after graduation, and wound up teaching in rural high schools. A classroom incident prompted him to write. Trying to figure out how to explain the American westward movement to a group of 14 Yup’ik Eskimo students, he came across Frederick Jackson Turner’s classic essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” which he had read in my “American Heritage” course. His students were “intrigued” by it, and by the fact that it was from one of his college classes. He went on to tell them about his experience learning history at Hillsdale and how the love his professors showed for the field was one of the main reasons he became a teacher. To me, he concluded, “The way you spoke of American history was as a great story that just needed unraveling.”

That unexpected message from a distant place and a distant past moved me to tears. And it should serve as a metaphor for everything we do.